The Union Stock Yards and Immigration

An Immigrant who arrived in the United States needed work. That’s clear. The best place to find work as a butcher during the second half of the 19th century up until the 1970s was probably Chicago. But if a butcher had formerly been used to kill about one pig a day he had to face the facts that at the famous Union Stock Yards he would be involved in the slaughtering of one animal every fifteen minutes.

This is just something that might have come to one’s mind while listening to Dominic Pacygas talk about the reality at the Union Stock Yards on Saturday. Even though it was not the first time we heard about the masses of cattle, hogs and horses that were slaughtered in the slaughterhouses Upton Sinclair describes in his famous novel The Jungle, it was the first time we heard it from someone who worked on this area – even though only as security person.

There we stood in front of the gate of the former Union Stock Yards and wrinkled our noses, disgusted by the smell of bacon that filled the air coming from one of the last remaining meatpacking houses of Chicago, while listening to the astonishing numbers Dominic Pacyga knew about his former employer.

The group at the gate to the Union Stock Yards.

Opened on Christmas Day 1865 the Union Stock Yards soon became the world’s largest meatpacking center. It was probably there where the killing of animals was turned into an industrial processing line. On 320 acres of land were different slaughterhouses erected, accompanied by pens that could hold over 100 000 head of lifestock. Railroads ended right in front of the gates of the district and made a quick transport possible. In the eight to ten story high slaughterhouses about 8000 pigs a day were killed and further processed. From the so called hog wheel in the upper floor the carcasses were moved down a line. Each worker performed a single operation. Those on their first days had a good chance to be in duty of pushing the blood into the blood channel so it could be used for further products.

One of the last remaining slaughterhouses.

The image of that machinery is a cruel one, but in terms of our interest the stockyards where an important part of the history of immigration in Chicago. It was there where the Packing House Union was established – the first Union that brought Afro-Americans and white Americans together. And it was there where millions of unskilled immigrants found work (50000 people during World War II) One ethnic group after another – shaping and changing the picture of the neighborhoods of Chicago.

Tina Neundorf

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